How I Know That Psychiatric Hospitals Don’t Cure Gun Violence
The president said Monday that we need more mental hospitals in order to address gun violence and mass shootings. I’ve been in a psychiatric hospital as a patient, and I work as a lawyer representing people who are currently in them. More psychiatric hospitals are not the answer.
Depending on whose statistics you believe, it’s either 1 in 5 or 1 in 4 of us who will be labeled with a mental health diagnosis. I’m part of the crowd — I was diagnosed by a doctor with bipolar disorder my first year at Harvard Law School. Then, I was civilly committed by a district court judge for treatment at McLean Hospital for a period not to exceed six months, because I was found to be dangerous to myself based on an alleged suicidal threat I made.
Psychiatric hospitals are not places where people get well. It’s not where I got well. Yes, certainly, my mania was stabilized — but I did the hard work of recovery after discharge. I returned to law school the following year, and got back to my life.
Psychiatric hospitals are facilities where people who are there, in theory, to get help for a medical condition are subject to violence and trauma — in the form of involuntary medication, restraint and seclusion, disrespectful treatment, and, in the most egregious cases, physical abuse. People remain unnecessarily institutionalized and segregated — in violation of their civil rights — because community based services and supports are inadequately funded.
More hospital beds are not the answer. It is a facile and easy solution to label the gun violence problem as mental illness. It is simplistic to say let’s put people with mental health conditions on a list so they will not be able to (legally) buy a gun. The criteria proposed by the Obama administration, recently rescinded by this administration, included people who receive Social Security disability benefits for a mental health condition and have a representative payee. While that may be administratively easy (this list can be generated with a search of the Social Security database), it would be ineffective in preventing future gun violence.
Eligibility for Social Security benefits requires clinical medical evidence of the applicant’s health condition, which means being actively in treatment. This is something we usually encourage. Having a representative payee only means that someone believes the benefit recipient may have difficulty handling and managing the benefits to meet his or her basic needs — nothing more, and nothing less. Neither undergoing treatment for a mental health condition nor an inability to manage money is linked to violence.
I can’t legally own a gun. The civil commitment in 1990 was based on an empty threat to jump off the roof of the law school library. That court finding is considered an adjudication of my mental defectiveness; this means I would not pass a federal background check.
If you want to discuss gun violence and mental health, talk about suicide. I’m thankful that I’ve never had access to a gun; my suicide attempts might have been more than attempts if I had. The conversation about mental health has to change. It cannot be a conversation for the purpose of “preventing gun violence.” It cannot be a conversation placing all the blame on people living with mental health conditions.
Every new mass shooting brings a conversation about mental health. We in the mental health advocacy community have been having these conversations for years — decades, even. We need allies in the fight to preserve Medicaid, which pays for about 25 percent of the mental health services in this country. We are fighting to increase mental health parity and to preserve essential health benefits, so that people covered by private insurance plans can have access to mental health care. It’s not about bolstering mental health care in the name of preventing gun violence. It’s so we have a functional mental health system with sufficient funding so that people like me who are living with mental health conditions are able to access the services and supports we need to thrive in the communities of our choice.
Kathleen Flaherty of Newington is the executive director of Connecticut Legal Rights Project, a statewide nonprofit that provides legal services to low income people with mental health conditions. She is a member of The Courant’s Voices board.